Beginning last week and through this week, we read the personal letters of Paul. He wrote two to Timothy, one to Titus, and one to Philemon. Of course, there may have been other private, personal epistles, but these four were meant for the churches. Timothy and Titus were pastors. Philemon was the host of a congregation (Philemon 1:2).
There are many matters addressed briefly in these letters. One issue that often raises questions for readers is slavery. We know that a major Old Testament theme was God’s opposition to and overcoming of the enslavement of the Jews. How, then, could Paul seem to accept slavery, saying, for example, “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled” (1 Timothy 6:1)?
Paul taught individual slaves to show honor to their non-Christian masters so that Jesus’ name would not be cursed by unbelievers. Modern ears prize a gospel of self-actualization above all, but Jesus had taught His disciples to carry crosses (Lk 14:27).
The situation was different, however, when the slave-owner was a Christian. In one of his earliest epistles, Paul set down the marker saying, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In Philemon, we read Paul’s reaction to the situation where a Christian slave-owner sought the return of a runaway slave. That slave, Onesimus, came into contact with Paul and became a Christian. Paul urges and expects Philemon to set him free, “that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:15-16).
When Christians of previous ages argued about slavery in the Bible, they pointed out that Paul didn’t command Philemon to set Onesimus free. But this is not really an argument in favor of slavery. Indeed, Paul’s refusal to command a brother in Christ reflected what Paul wanted, for Philemon to no longer command Onesimus as a slave. Paul wanted Philemon to release Onesimus freely precisely because the Gospel brings love through freedom.
This, too, is something for us to remember. Sometimes we see what is right and when someone else does not, we want to accomplish that good through a command or through political enforcement. Certainly there are times when laws and force are necessary to protect the innocent. But every time we go that route, we lose the ability for people to give freely in love.
“For [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (Ephesians 2:14-15). Paul practiced what he preached. Onesimus and Philemon were restored as brothers, not by the law of command, but through the grace of the Gospel.